Archive for January, 2013

FFmpeg vs libav: A distribution maintainer point of view almost two years after the split.

January 18, 2013

It’s been a while since I wanted to write about this and since there recently has been a sort of hijack without any kind of discussion to let libav be the default implementation for Gentoo, this motivated me.

Exactly two years ago, a group consisting of the majority of FFmpeg developers took over its maintainership. While I didn’t like the methods, I’m not an insider so my opinion stops here, especially since if you pay attention to who was involved: Luca was part of it. Luca has been a Gentoo developer since probably most of us even used Gentoo and I must admit I’ve never seen him heating any discussion, rather the contrary, and it’s always been a pleasure to work with him. What happened next, after a lot of turmoil, is that the developers split in two groups: libav formed by the “secessionists” and FFmpeg.

Good, so what do we chose now? One of the first things that was done on the libav side was to “cleanup” the API with the 0.7 release, meaning we had to fix almost all its consumers: Bad idea if you want wide adoption of a library that has an history of frequently changing its API and breaking all its consumers. Meanwhile, FFmpeg maintained two branches: the 0.7 branch compatible with the old API and the 0.8 one with the new API. The two branches were supposed to be identical except for the API change. On my side the choice was easy: Thanks but no thanks sir, I’ll stay with FFmpeg.
FFmpeg, while having its own development and improvements, has been doing daily merges of all libav changes, often with an extra pass of review and checks, so I can even benefit from all the improvements from libav while using FFmpeg.

So why should we use libav? I don’t know. Some projects use libav within their release process, so they are likely to be much more tested with libav than FFmpeg. However, until I see real bugs, I consider this as pure supposition and I have yet to see real facts. On the other hand, I can see lots of false claims, usually without any kind of reference: Tomáš claims that there’s no failure that is libav specific, well, some bugs tend to say the contrary and have been open for some time (I’ll get back to XBMC later). Another false claim is that FFmpeg-1.1 will have the same failures as libav-9: Since Diego made a tinderbox run for libav-9, I made the tests for FFmpeg 1.1 and made the failures block our old FFmpeg 0.11 tracker. If you click the links, you will see that the number of blockers is much smaller (something like 2/3) for the FFmpeg tracker. Another false claim I have seen is that there will be libav-only packages: I have yet to see one; the example I had as an answer is gst-plugins-libav, which unfortunately is in the same shape for both implementations.

In theory FFmpeg-1.1 and libav-9 should be on par, but in practice, after almost two years of disjoint development, small differences have started to accumulate. One of them is the audio resampling library: While libswresample has been in FFmpeg since the 0.9 series, libav developers did not want it and made another one, with a very similar API, called libavresample that appeared in libav-9. This smells badly as a NIH syndrome, but to be fair, it’s not the first time such things happen: libav and FFmpeg developers tend to write their own codecs instead of wrapping external libraries and usually achieve better results. The audio resampling library is why XBMC being broken with libav is, at least partly, my fault: While cleaning up its API usage of FFmpeg/libav, I made it use the public API for audio resampling, initially with libswresample but made sure it worked with libavresample from libav. At that time, this would mean it required libav git master since libav-9 was not even close to be released, so there was no point in trying to make it compatible with such a moving target. libswresample from FFmpeg was present since the 0.9 series, released more than one year ago. Meanwhile, XBMC-12 has entered its release process, meaning it will probably not work with libav easily. Too late, too bad.

Another important issue I’ve raised is the security holes: Nowadays, we are much more exposed to them. Instead of having to send a specially crafted video to my victim and make him open it with the right program, I only have to embed it in an HTML5 webpage and wait. This is why I am a bit concerned that security issues fixed 7 months ago in FFmpeg have only been fixed with the recently released libav-0.8.5. I’ve been told that these issues are just crashes are have been fixed in a better way in libav: This is probably true but I still consider the delay huge for such an important component of modern systems, and, thanks to FFmpeg merging from libav, the better fix will also land in FFmpeg. I have also been told that this will improve on the libav side, but again, I want to see facts rather than claims.

As a conclusion: Why is the default implementation changed? Some people seem to like it better and use false claims to force their preference. Is it a good idea for our users? Today, I don’t think so (remember: FFmpeg merges from libav and adds its own improvements), maybe later when we’ll have some clear evidence that libav is better (the improvements might be buggy or the merges might lead to subtle bugs). Will I fight to get the default back to FFmpeg ? No. I use it, will continue to use and maintain it, and will support people that want the default back to FFmpeg but that’s about it.